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Paul Volcker: “Not an Ordinary Recession”

http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2009/02/paul-volcker/

Paul Volcker recently gave a speech that has gotten a lot of replay action on the blogosphere. I believe most are saying that Volcker is calling for a return to “narrow banking” (see Jesse).

A lot of people listen to Volcker as he led the charge at the Fed over taming inflation back in the late 70s and early 80s. I wonder more if he wasn’t just at the right place at the right time, doing what had to be done — raising rates. I’m convinced that most people give entirely too much credit both on blame and accolades. Don’t get me wrong, the Fed has enormous power, but my estimation is that they are almost always messing things up. The Fed is reactionary always and almost always reacts too far.

Therein lies the problem. The Fed fails at regulating. Hardly surprising, really. Is it not a joke to pay lip service to free markets, which are incredibly dynamic decentralized systems, and then use a central body to regulate the blood of the system, money? It’s a sad joke.

I could go on, but I’ll hold off. There are two pieces of Volcker’s recent speech I want to quote and comment on briefly. First:

One of the saddest days of my life was when my grandson – and he’s a particularly brilliant grandson – went to college. He was good at mathematics. And after he had been at college for a year or two I asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. He said, “I want to be a financial engineer.” My heart sank. Why was he going to waste his life on this profession?

A year or so ago, my daughter had seen something in the paper, some disparaging remarks I had made about financial engineering. She sent it to my grandson, who normally didn’t communicate with me very much. He sent me an email, “Grandpa, don’t blame it on us! We were just following the orders we were getting from our bosses.” The only thing I could do was send him back an email, “I will not accept the Nuremberg excuse.”

There was so much opaqueness, so many complications and misunderstandings involved in very complex financial engineering by people who, in my opinion, did not know financial markets. They knew mathematics. They thought financial markets obeyed mathematical laws. They have found out differently now. You know, they all said these events only happen once every hundred years. But we have “once every hundred years” events happening every year or two, which tells me something is the matter with the analysis.

So I think we have a problem which is not an ordinary business cycle problem. It is much more difficult to get out of and it has shaken the foundations of our financial institutions. The system is broken.

The system is broken. The system was too opaque. Finance is incredibly complex. It is here where I actually started wondering if Volcker “gets it” as far as understanding that our system is far from robust as centrally controlled and designed. As it is, Nassim Taleb is the only person I’ve seen who seems to glimpse the complexity of the financial system. However, I’ve seen even Taleb defer in theory to people “who saw this coming,” like Nouriel Roubini, for potential ways to “fix” the system.

Volcker’s comment about his grandson also hits home with me as I went into finance/accounting. When everyone you know is running into a field, that may be cause to rethink your choice of education (Everyone I knew in college was getting into Real Estate — this was back in 2001). Then again, I still wish I had gone and pursued computer science, but the dotcom crash (2000) scared me away.

More from Volcker:

What do I mean by different? I think a primary characteristic of the system ought to be a strong, traditional, commercial banking-type system. Probably we ought to have some very large institutions – or at least that’s the way the market is going – whose primary purpose is a kind of fiduciary responsibility to service consumers, individuals, businesses and governments by providing outlets for their money and by providing credit. They ought to be the core of the credit and financial system. …

What has happened recently just underscores that. And I think we’re at the point where we can no longer fool ourselves by saying that is not the case. The government will support these institutions, which in turn implies a closer supervision and regulation of those institutions, a more effective regulation than we’ve had, at least in the United States, in the recent past. And that may involve a lot of different agencies and so forth. I won’t get into that.

So just as soon as I thought maybe Volcker “gets it,” he goes and says we should have a strong core (read: centralized) system of banking that is heavily regulated. He wants this core to be firewalled from entrepreneurial finance to eliminate conflicts of interest.

I’ll be brief. Regulation has failed. The Federal Reserve is a monstrous regulatory body that has repeatedly exemplified failure, and I’ve already mentioned its innate centralization. The SEC? Failure at every turn. More regulation? More centralization? How many examples do we need whereby larger organizations display a need for more regulation, and when more regulation is presented, said regulatory agency is either captured by the body it intends to regulate or is inept?

What we need are decentralized banking systems that are free enough and unencumbered enough to fix themselves or self-destruct without taking down the entire network.

The great centralization experiment has failed. Let’s move on (and follow the example of the internet, which exemplifies the power of decentralization).

Enough for now.

Update 2/24/09: Saw a youtube clip of Volcker’s speech. Wanted to get this quote down:

The description of a fat tail reflects a kind of analysis that isn’t appropriate. They think that financial markets follow normal distributions. pattern like the law of physics. The one remark I’ll leave with you: if you think the financial world follows a normal distribution pattern like the laws of physics. If you think that you’re a financial engineer but you’re not a very good financial analyst.

So he recognizes how inherently unpredictable financial markets are but then goes on to suggest that the Federal Reserve can fix imbalances that present themselves.

Cognitive dissonance.

[video:youtube:O3ROf8ln9rg]

@ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3ROf8ln9rg